The recent endorsement of red palm oil by one of America’s most recognized medical professionals, Dr Mehmet Oz, has led to a frenzy of activity in the activist community. In an effort to denounce both Dr Oz and the palm oil industry, organizations like Rainforest Action Network have taken to proclaiming inaccurate attacks against palm oil for fear that the nutritional benefits of the crop may in fact become recognized by the wider American and European public. But fortunately for consumers, much of what Dr Oz said was correct.
Rainforest Action Network in particular has maintained it’s fundamental opposition to all things palm oil, lately positioning itself as a health expert. Unfortunately for those that look to these environmental activists for counsel, much of what they proclaim is inaccurate. Consider these claims made by the organization:
RAN claim #1: According to the World Health Organization and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, palm oil is unhealthy due to its saturated fat content – Despite scientific research definitively demonstrating that saturated fat consumption is unrelated to cardiovascular disease, this canard has continued. A hypothesis initially considered by scientist Ancel Keys in the 1950s, his “Seven Country Study” has since been proven to be grossly manipulated. Unfortunately, organizations like the WHO and the NHLBI ignore the decades of research that proves the criticism against saturated fats to be false. Consider the fact that prior to the publication of the WHO report referenced by RAN, Dr Nevin S. Scrimshaw, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and President of the International Nutrition Foundation warned that the WHO risked compromising its credibility with the claim that palm oil is harmful to health. And the NHLBI has been specifically implicated in a rise in iodine deficiency because of their campaigns against salt. In 2000, the American Heart Association proclaimed that reducing fat intake is not effective for reducing cardiovascular disease.
RAN claim #2: Palm oil is unhealthy – Palm oil has been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. Scientists believe it may hold important benefits for victims of neuro-degeneration such as strokes. Nutrition experts have found that red-palm oil which is rich in beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) may offer millions of people suffering from Vitamin-A deficiency (including more than 250 million children) a cure from a crippling nutrient deficiency. According to NGO Fonds Francais Alimentation & Sante (French Fund for Food and Health), palm oil plays an important role as part of a balanced diet. Research undertaken in China has demonstrated that palm oil consumption has a neutral, if not positive, impact on the risk of cardiovascular disease. In sum, palm oil is not just a healthy vegetable oil, but has important medical benefits.
RAN claim #3: Dr Oz’s endorsement of palm oil has led to a buying frenzy – Palm oil consumption is continuing its long-term trend of market growth both in the US and Europe, though not because of the health claims made by television personalities like Dr Oz. The Western markets are turning to palm oil because of its role as an ideal replacement for toxic partially hydrogenated vegetable oils – the primary source of artificial trans-fats. And the result is lower costs for food producers and consumers without the added health risk to which more than 200,000 cardiovascular disease related deaths per year were attributed. That’s is certainly a win-win for all involved.
RAN claim #4: Palm oil is being re-branded as sustainable and healthy – Historical revisionism is not the best means by which to advocate for healthy living. RAN should consider the real manipulation of science that led to the perception that palm oil was unhealthy in the first place – the anti-tropical oil campaigns in the 1970s and 80s. The result of these campaigns was the introduction of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in Europe and America – a health scourge that has left millions overweight and many dead from cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, the campaigns against palm oil have escalated just as palm oil imports have risen to place these toxic, processed vegetable oils, to the detriment of consumer health.
And the sustainability of Malaysian palm oil has never been in question. Not only is Malaysia the primary source of RSPO-certified palm oil, Malaysia has also actively enforced its commitment to preserve more than 50 per cent of its forests in perpetuity. Today, the country retains more than 62 per cent forest cover, while oil palm plantations occupy only 15 per cent of Malaysia’s land area. In the United States, home of RAN, more than 44 per cent of the land area is occupied by agriculture!
RAN claim #5: Palm oil is not a sustainable biofuel under the US’s Renewable Fuel Standard – Malaysia is actively promoting its national interests in Washington and to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the EPA’s assessment of palm oil and to have the crop included as a sustainable biofuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard. According to the EPA, palm biodiesel only reduces emissions by 17%, but independent assessments demonstrate this claim to be inaccurate. Dr Robert Shapiro, former Undersecretary of Commerce for President Clinton, finds more accurate greenhouse gas emissions savings for palm oil to be between 58% and 64%. And Dr Gernot Pehnelt of the University of Jena, Germany, has assessed palm biodiesel emissions savings to more conservatively be between 38.5% and 41%. However, in recognition of the sharp differences in assessments, the EPA recently undertook a fact-finding mission to Malaysia to witness oil palm plantations and the production of palm biodiesel firsthand, and Malaysia eagerly awaits the release of their findings.
Unfortunately, in defending the palm oil industry and by extension the health of global consumers from disingenuous claims made by RAN and their allies, the industry has been vilified by the very organizations that claim to be impartial and science-based. The Malaysian palm oil industry includes over 240,000 small farmers in an industry that employs almost 1 million people. With oil/fat consumption expected to more than double by 2050, the world will increasingly rely on highly efficient, healthy vegetable oil sources. The world needs palm oil today, and even more so, tomorrow.